Thinking Design
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Thinking Design

Facilitating Structures: Toward a New Way of Working and Learning Together

What does it mean to be a designer at this time in history? Think about that for a second. Or several days.

At the risk of speaking for all designers, I’ll say we’ve moved beyond just surface and tactical concerns, at least in our discourse. I still see religious debates over design tools, and excitement over the latest visual design trends. But, if five years ago we were debating round corners on buttons, we’re now debating whether these things should even exist, and the effect on our society and the world at large. We’re designing from a more thoughtful perspective.

Interaction Design involves the shaping of behavior. Making a button obvious to push, defining what happens when it’s pushed, etc. But one thing we didn’t much talk about (at least when I was in design school) was what happens when millions of people push that button.

Here’s my 2¢.

Why we design doesn’t change.

Design helps us know the possible; the world as it might be. It’s a mechanism for exploring, evaluating, and shaping the future. (Thank you, Karl, for this description!)

But we design and we design…that is always changing.

Moving from products to experiences to outcomes. A slide from my SXSW 2019 talk.

In recent years, I’ve come to recognize that the biggest influence I can have, as a designer and design leader, is to become more of a facilitator.

My journey

This wasn’t an easy journey. If — five years ago — you had asked me about personal influence, I would have gladly talked about “winning hearts and minds.” Now, this phrase is a hot button for me. Buried in this seemingly well-intended statement is hubris.

“I know better. I have the answer(s). I need to compel people to my vision.”

-Stephen Anderson

I would think this is a struggle for all who design. Core to the design mindset is the ability to see things as they should or could be; it’s in our nature to imagine a future others haven’t seen yet, then do the hard work to bring this vision to life. Our own design heroes are people who’ve done precisely this — used their charisma, charm, woo, and diplomacy to make their way a reality.

But I don’t believe this approach will serve us well, moving forward, as things get more complex and interconnected. There’s simply too many moving and changing pieces for one person to piece together into a coherent vision. In turbulent, changing times, we need to arrive at shared visions together, or focus more on continuous learning, and less on visions that change from week to week. We need more authentic collaboration. I’ve learned to replace the “win hearts and minds” mantra with a different one, “Work and learn together.”

On stage at CanUX, discussing my journey from “Changing Hearts + Minds” to “Working + Learning Together”.

On multiple teams and projects, I’ve learned — the hard way — to bring people along. And I’m learning to elevate diverse experiences over individual expertise. As desperately as I might want to tell people how to solve a problem, I also know it’s better to ask hard questions, so we can figure it out together. This is hard.

We all collect individual experiences that lead us to conclude we know the answers. But we don’t. We only know what we’ve learned from our unique experiences. These experiences are valuable, to be sure, but will never be complete. There’s too much for any one person to learn in their lifetime, and everything is changing around us.

We need to celebrate — and harness — the diverse experiences of everyone in the room, the building, or perhaps the world. We need to develop our group cognitive abilities. Yes, this flies in the face of all that we — as designers — have been taught about defining and communicating a design point of view. But recognize this as point of view. The more complex the design problem, the more likely this view is incomplete and flawed. And to be clear, I am not advocating for any kind of Borg-like group think. That doesn’t work. No, this is about harnessing unique perspectives, not norming them.

So what can be done? How do we as designers direct and turn dreams into reality?

A new challenge for design

The journey I’m on has led me to this broader conclusion: As designers, especially as design leaders, we all need to embrace our skills at facilitation. A colleague of mine recently commented that designers seem to make better facilitators — I think there’s some truth in that. Perhaps it’s from the creative process, or being practiced at critique, or maybe it’s any of the many design methods we’ve picked up. Wherever it comes from, it’s a muscle to develop.

We need to find, curate, and create the kinds of safe and playful structures that celebrate and bring out the best ideas a group can produce. If we don’t do this, I fear we’ve consigned ourselves to being short-order cooks, and constrain design at the level of craft — which is fine if that’s your passion; I suspect many of us want more influence over the direction of things. Facilitation is the key.

But this is more than just traditional in-person facilitation. Beyond the work to create more diversity and belonging, beyond efforts to create places where we are authentic and vulnerable, I think there’s a unique role for designers: There’s an opportunity to make “things to think with and spaces for generative play.” This has become my mission.

One of the things that attracted me to design was the kind of thinking demonstrated in our artifacts, from concept models we create to the explanations that unpack the rationale and considerations for a particular design decision.

Design artifacts.

Is it any wonder that a tool like the Business Model Canvas, used by thousands of companies to wrestle with fundamental business questions, builds upon and includes design methods? Or that Dan Roam, famous for his back of the napkin communications, was (is) himself a designer?

The Business Model Canvas in action. Image by usembassymadrid.

What I see in these tools and structures are designed things, things that can be used by individuals and teams to deepen our understanding. Card decks. Canvases. Models and maps. These are simple activities and toolkits that might help us all — individually and collectively — take on the most difficult situations we’re now bumping into:

And while it may sound like a stretch to connect toolkits to such heavy issues, this is exactly what something like the Tarot Cards of Tech was created to do. If we look at the work of a visionary such as Bret Victor, he talks about dynamic tools to help us understand and create, and then he points all this at something like the present climate crisis. Whether it’s writing on a cave wall or creating a way to visualize machine learning algorithms, humans have a long history of creating tools that extend our ability to reason about things. Who designs these tools?

Assorted card decks and other toolkits.

Whether it’s something more personal, like the team conflicts that stem from a lack of self-awareness, or something big, like the tricky, interconnected systems problems that call for the coordination of many parties, we need better tools for thinking. And we need to understand how to design such tools.

Personal bias or trend?

But let’s pause. All of this could be my personal bias: My background is in teaching, after all. And throughout my design career, I’ve been drawn to making difficult topics accessible and understandable for all. Posters. Maps. Workshops. Keynotes. Maybe it’s just me…?

I don’t think this is the case.

One, I’ve seen firsthand the democratization of design. In maturing orgs where design is truly embraced, you suddenly have untrained rank and file doing ‘our’ jobs: Engineers doing customer research. Product managers dropping into our design tools. And it doesn’t always look good — the adolescent fumbling of people doing something they weren’t trained for can be awkward to watch. So how we do respond? We can draw lines in the sand, or we can lean in and help others; we can become coaches and facilitators.

Learning how to display information visually with Stephen Anderson’s Spatial Thinking Tiles.

That’s my experience, but listen to what other design leaders are saying:

In “ Reflections on Business, Design, and Value “, Andrea Mignolo describes design as a learning activity, commenting “that design activities, when made visible as a source of value, have the potential to be learned and used across the entire organization.”

During her keynote at the 2019 IA Conference, Kim Goowin remarked “Organizational decision making should be our design medium.”

In a post on the coupling between design and business, Erika Hall remarks that “the purpose of a diagram in design is often to create a shared understanding to help people work together to make good decisions.”

And then, earlier this year, design luminary Hugh Dubberly presented a teardown of the ‘design as problem solver’ narrative, before suggesting what second-order design is about. His conclusion? Design is concerned with:

“Creating conditions for systems to emerge in which others can design [for] themselves.”

-Hugh Dubberly

From “Problems with Problems: Reconsidering the Frame of Designing as Problem-Solving” by Hugh Dubberly.

This echoes a phrase I’ve been using, “facilitating structures.”

And this same trend, toward creating learning organizations, runs throughout nearly every domain I’ve explored. From conversations around what it means to be an agile organization to creating a culture of innovation to trends in K-12 education, we’re all converging on the same conclusions:

For complex challenges, we need learning that is: open and shared, self-directed, collaborative, just-in-time / in context, continuous, and integrated.

This is why I’m curating and creating things to think with. Tools to help with the kinds of learning described above. What I’ve learned, and I think we all know, is that learning needs to be self-directed, on demand, and social. This is the opposite of what we see in most organizations: “Here, read this book, or take this online course. Oh hey, we’re bringing in outside trainers next month. “ These things are fine and have their place. But most learning is happening elsewhere:

From passive learning to active learning.

In Slack threads, in vigorous water-cooler debates, from discussions on Reddit and Quora — we all carve out (and crave!) moments for learning, in spite of what our employers provide.

A future designing… tools?

The challenge then is this: Can we bring more tools — better tools — to the party? And can we bring people along? We love things like customer journeys and service blueprints, but they’re only as good as the diversity of folks who participate in their creation, and — ultimately — the decisions and actions they help drive.

Gathering to create a customer journey. Image by Adaptive Path.

With these tools, it’s about the mapping, not the maps. And even these wonderful tools have a blind spot: They’re focused on things at the level of the lone user, the individual, when increasingly our challenges involve many stakeholders, each with their own, intertwined journeys. Where are the tools for navigating the competing interests of many users?

And what about interactive tools? What might we be using in just a few years? As powerful as the kinds of visual representations we have are, they’re also limited. How far can we go with an x-y matrix, boxes and arrows, or things spread across a timeline? How much more powerful might these visual representations be when augmented through rich interactions, dynamic data, and algorithms? I’m looking at ‘ explorable explanations’ and learning more about model thinking, so I can become a better designer. So I can facilitate rich thinking and dialogue.

From The Parable of the Polygons, an ‘explorable explanation’ from Nicky Case.

And that leads me to the biggest argument for promoting and creating these facilitating structures: These tools let us and others see a challenge, through many lenses. Every new toolkit, model, frame, or perspective we bring, helps us break out of our own static mindsets, and helps others do the same. We learn to see things differently, and envision unseen opportunities. And we learn to work and learn together, for a better tomorrow. And isn’t that what design has always been about?

For more unique insights and authentic points of view on the practice, business and impact of design, visit Adobe XD Ideas.

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